Thursday, 21 January 2016

Sodomitical and unnatural habits

Jim, Paul and I trolled off to Waterstones booksellers in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday night for quite a momentous encounter. It's not every day one gets to hear in person the musings of Oscar Wilde's grandson!

Yet, here in person was Merlin Holland discussing his research into that notorious trial, and how it inexorably led to his involvement in a current West End production based upon Dear Oscar's most controversial work, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Here is an extract from his recent article on the subject in The Huffington Post:
There was greater emphasis in the trial on literature and Oscar defending himself and his work... against the attempts by the defence's lawyers to imply Oscar's guilt by association with it and thus prove justification for Queensberry calling him a sodomite. They portrayed the story as an "immoral and obscene work" depicting "sodomitical and unnatural habits tastes and practices... and calculated to subvert morality and to encourage unnatural vice." Strong stuff to describe a book which we give to our teenagers today to teach them about Oscar Wilde and the power of well-written prose. became clear to me that he was in court not just for 'gross indecency' as homosexual acts were quaintly called then but also, indirectly, for being the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He had written it in the winter of 1889 at a point in his life when he was hovering, with a wife and two children, on the edge of literary respectability, and it was published in June the following year in Lippincott's Magazine. The critics at once condemned it as "a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction" and written "for outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys", which is as close as they could allow themselves to an outright accusation of the story's homosexual overtones. The oblique reference was to a police raid the year before on a notorious male brothel in Cleveland Street involving young employees of the General Post Office with members of the aristocracy, and the subsequent Establishment cover-up. "To get into the best society, nowadays, one has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people," Lord Illingworth remarks in A Woman of No Importance. Unfortunately, in taking his own advice, Oscar cannot have foreseen the danger to which he would be exposing himself five years later.

Once the succès de scandale had died down, Oscar set about expanding the story to have it published in book-form, which it was the following year. As well as adding new material, rather uncharacteristically, he toned down some of the more overtly homoerotic passages but always denied publicly that any adverse criticism affected his decision. In adapting it for the stage, we have reintroduced a few of those suppressions from the magazine as well as others from the original manuscript, in order to reflect Oscar's original intentions. These passages, significant as they are, will be largely unknown to the general public, who read the novel today as published in its book-length version. One in particular, where the painter confesses his love for Dorian was made much of at the Queensberry libel trial: "It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I had never loved a woman. I suppose I never had time."
Heady stuff indeed, to be published in the midst of the the prudish repression of 1890s Britain (it was only in 1885, after all, that The British Parliament enacted section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which effectively criminalised homosexuality).

This was a truly engrossing evening. Among the most salient observations Mr Holland made was: had Oscar not taken the libel action against Bosie's father the Marquess of Queensbury - which led remorselessly to the trial, humiliation and imprisonment of the great man of letters - would it really have taken another seven decades (until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967) for that heinous criminalisation to be repealed?

By way of a little tribute to the enduring impact of Oscar Wilde, his martyrdom, and the legendary status he gained amongst those persecuted (and illegal) gay men a generation later - here's Noel Coward's paean to aesthetes everywhere:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Merlin Holland and John O'Connor, is on at Trafalgar Studios from 18th January to 13th February 2016.


  1. What a treasure that must have been. Your so lucky.

    1. It was rather special, I agree. Mind you, if one lives in London, such bizarre and random opportunities do happen quite often - as you are aware, from following this blog... Jx


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